Hosting history

Local inns provide a small town charm

The Secret Garden Inn first opened for business in 1996.
The Secret Garden Inn first opened for business in 1996.

A rich history can define the character of a bed and breakfast, transforming a typical stay into a glimpse into the past.

Kingston residents John and Maryanne Baker had always shared a dream of owning a bed and breakfast.

In 1996, after two years of renovations, that dream became a reality with The Secret Garden Inn.

Housekeeper Shirley Babcock, who is also a friend of the Bakers, said she was looking for a way to occupy her time while her kids were in school.

“There’s always something different. You’re meeting people from all over the place,” she said.

The most memorable experience she can recall is meeting a TV personality, though they seemed different in person than she had expected. Babcock, however, couldn’t expose the celebrity’s identity.

Despite the change in ownership, Babcock said she has remained at the inn, entranced by the beauty in the home’s craftsmanship.

In 2011, Kathy Davidson, bought The Secret Garden Inn, trading in retirement life on Howe Island to manage her own bed and breakfast. She had been living on her own, and, aside from neighbours, she was missing the social aspect in her life.

“Here there’s always someone in the house. It keeps life very interesting,” she said.

Descendants from the home’s original owner, John McKay, also make visits to the inn from time to time, though they have since moved to various places, like Virginia and other parts of Ontario.

Long before the house was converted into a bed and breakfast, the McKays’ residence spanned four generations. The building and its architectural preservation is still reminiscent of their time on the quaint streets of Sydenham Ward up until the 1940s.

The subsequent owners, the McCulloughs, also enjoy staying in touch with the inn. Davidson said that when she had previously lived on Howe Island, one of her neighbours was a McCullough from that same family.

“She brought her father, now 90, who was a boy growing up in the house [to the inn] so that was interesting when I first moved in,” she said.

During its transformation into an inn, the architecture and the essence of the home has been preserved, styled with antique furniture, harbouring memories of the past.

One of Davidson’s favourite aspects is the personal interaction between guests, which contrasts with the anonymity of large hotel chains.

“[Guests] will end up sitting on the porch and sharing a little bit of their history and what they’re doing here and where they’re traveling,” she said. “Certainly over breakfast we have some really lively conversations.”

A short stay at the inn allows for brief encounters that leave resounding impressions from interesting faculty members, key researchers or Nobel Prize winners.

Davidson said that the family of the original homeowners don’t usually run bed and breakfasts, but instead, the innkeepers purchase historical homes to open an inn. “If you’re thinking that historic inns are run by people who have been in the family for 125 years, that’s not true,” she said.

Returning guests enjoy the quaint charm of a historic inn fashioned in the Victorian style. Routines such as a light tea in the afternoon and a garden with conventional English roses, lilies and lilacs foster a sense of tradition and homey warmth.

“We’re well-known for our candlelit gourmet breakfast and certainly because a lot of guests return, you don’t want to change too much,” Davidson said.

As with many of the old houses in Sydenham Ward, the Secret Garden Inn has a historic designation, Davidson explained, which means the exterior of the house has to be maintained exactly as it was originally built.

“It’s not hard to comply with that part of the heritage designation because you wouldn’t want to change it,” she said.

Despite sharing a street with three other historic inns, Davidson said each inn is distinct and guests often wish to experience each one.

If all seven rooms are booked, she will send guests interested in staying at a historic inn to another one in the area.

“So yes there’s competition, but there’s also lots of cooperation,” she said.

Anne Boyd, the owner of Hochelaga Inn, said she and her husband fell in love with Kingston when they came to see the inn, which went on sale 11 years ago.

Boyd, who has been in the hospitality business for 35 years, was preparing for retirement and wanted to downsize from their Muskoka resort. She now owns the largest bed and breakfast in Kingston.

“We still didn’t want to be out of the business ’cause we enjoyed it so much,” she said.

Compared to the Boyds’ Muskoka resort, which had hired chefs to provide full meals, their 21-room bed and breakfast was a drastic change, where breakfasts are prepared and served by Boyd herself.

A bed and breakfast, Boyd said, is similar to a hotel, but more personable.

“It’s totally different,” she said. “A resort on the lake we had like a hundred people a day. So there were children’s programs, boats and a bar with entertainment.” Boyd said if you’re serving people, you’re constantly making conversation. The breakfast, which is highly anticipated by guests, is both locally sourced and homemade.

Fielding questions about the inn are a constant joy for Boyd. Questions about ghosts and the age of the inn are most frequently asked.

“[The ghost] is dressed in black with a black veiled hat on,” she said. “She always sits in the same corner in the dining room.”

Boyd said she doesn’t know how the ghosts have gotten here, but people have seen and felt them.

Mediums, she said, speculate they’re in a place of transience between the worlds, where some are unable to move beyond.

Sir John A. Macdonald also lived quite close to the inn and resided in many of the surrounding properties, Boyd said.

A ghost of a child that lingers around the inn is speculated to be Macdonald’s son.

“He had a child who was ill. His relatives stayed here quite often so maybe it was his child,” Boyd said, “because otherwise why would a child be here?” Behind the inn and the courthouse, Boyd said, is a hanging yard where prisoners used to be executed by hanging. This, she said, rouses questions among visitors.

“One time there was a ghost who attached himself to the inn … and some ghost mediums have told us he was angry because he had been hung,” Boyd said.

Though now, she reassures me, he has left the inn. Boyd’s love of the building extends from the history rooted in Sydenham Ward. Built in the 1800s, Boyd explained that the historical aspect of the building provokes the curiosity of guests, and is one of her favourite aspects of the inn.

“Many generations of people have walked the floors in the building and you can almost feel it,” she said. “It’s warm. It’s homey.”

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